Global Meetings

Civil Engineers Build a Meeting Around the Panama Canal

Next year, the Panama Canal turns 100 — and will be a focal point of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2014 Civil Engineering Conference in Panama City. We begin a year-long exploration of how a storied organization builds a meeting around one of its industry’s greatest accomplishments in a still-emerging business destination.

John Findlay Wallace and John Frank Stevens had two things in common: Both men served as chief engineer of the Panama Canal construction project, and both served a term as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) — Wallace in 1900 and Stevens in 1927. ASCE has since declared the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” (in 1994) as well as one of the “Monuments of the Millennium” (in 2000).

The long, involved history of ASCE and the canal will enter another phase in October 2014, when ASCE brings its 144th Annual Civil Engineering Conference to Panama City in honor of the canal’s 100th birthday. “We just started talking about [the fact] that it is one of the engineering feats,” said Amanda Rushing, CMP, ASCE’s director of conferences and meeting services, discussing why the canal made Panama a natural fit for ASCE’s annual conference. “They’re opening up several new locks. They’re building a bridge. And the Panama Canal contributed to a lot of other historical feats besides just the engineering portion of it. [It was there that the United States] discovered how to cure malaria.”

It was July, and Rushing was sitting in her office in ASCE’s Reston, Va., headquarters, looking simultaneously at the past and the future of the Panama Canal. “That’s why the French failed and that’s why the Americans were able to succeed,” she said, “because they finally found out what was causing the sickness, and how to treat it and prevent it. [The canal] is going to be a big part of the conference.”


“Big” is a word that naturally attaches itself to the Panama Canal, the massively ambitious waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The project was begun in 1881 by the French, who largely abandoned it eight years later, exhausted from their attempts to cut a 50-mile-long, 30-foot-deep, sea-level passage through the mosquito-infested jungles and landslide-prone mountains of the Isthmus of Panama, in what was then part of Colombia. More than 22,000 laborers died — from floods, accidents, and, especially, yellow fever and malaria. The United States took control of the project in May 1904 — literally, after backing a rebellion against Colombia by Panamanian separatists, resulting in the creation of the Republic of Panama and the U.S.-controlled Panama Canal Zone, which was only turned back over to Panama in 1999.

The first chief engineer on the U.S. project, Wallace, formerly the chief engineer and general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, lasted 13 months. He “seemed, almost from the beginning, defeated by the job and by the climate and terrain,” Julie Greene writes in The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal. “He saw the unhappiness of workers, their constant flight back to the United States, and accurately evaluated the problem: not only were the men worried about yellow fever, but they felt that housing was inadequate, amusements and diversions were nonexistent, and food prices were much too high. And they were homesick.”

Wallace’s successor, Stevens, was also a railroad man, with stints as chief engineer and general manager of the Great Northern Railway and as vice president of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. He made it 20 months as the canal’s chief engineer, but in that time had an enormous influence on the project, overhauling its railway system and successfully lobbying President Theodore Roosevelt to switch construction from a sea-level canal to a lock-based canal, which would use a series of dams and locks to raise ships to a 163-square-mile artificial lake 85 feet above sea level for passage through the isthmus.

Stevens resigned in 1907 and was replaced by Col. George Washington Goethals, never a president of ASCE but a distinguished military officer who served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and who saw the project through to its completion in 1914. And while the U.S. team, led by chief sanitary officer William Gorgas, was able to nearly eradicate yellow fever and malaria by zeroing in on mosquitos as carriers of the diseases, about 5,600 workers still died during the 10-year, $375-million project.

Since its official opening on Aug. 15, 1914, the canal has become a crucial link in international maritime trade and tourism — giving passage to more than 1 million ships by the end of 2011. More than that, it helped usher the United States onto the world stage. “As a symbol of American efficiency, enthusiasm, and contributions to world civilization, the Panama Canal hovered over the twentieth century like a phantom,” Greene writes. “It connected the acknowledged strengths of the United States in medicine, technology, and industry to expansionist aims and in this way helped make Americans more comfortable with their new role as a world power.”

And the canal is about to get even bigger. In 2007, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) broke ground on a $5.25-billion expansion project that will double the canal’s capacity by adding a third lane of traffic and widening and deepening existing lanes. The project is scheduled for completion in 2015.







This is the marvel of engineering, industry, and policy around which ASCE will build next year’s Civil Engineering Conference. “The ASCE has a longstanding relationship with Panama and the canal,” said Ana María Viscasillas, a business-tourism consultant who is working with the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) to promote Panama as an international meeting destination. “In one of the museums in Panama City, it shows one of the former presidents of the society actually working on the canal. It’s a wonderful tie-in. Those delegates attending the convention will experience not only the majesty of the canal but also enjoy the new expansion…. [Panama offers] much more beyond the canal, but celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the canal, it’s a historical moment.”

But before formally committing to the destination, in April 2012 Rushing and other ASCE executives — the executive director, the senior managing director of communications and public relations, the senior managing director of engineering and lifelong learning, and the then-president of the board of directors — attended the Panama Canal 2012 International Engineering and Infrastructure Congress, organized by ACP and Congrex, and supported by ASCE. “We went down to see how that was run, what kind of education they were having, what their turnout was,” Rushing said, “and to look at the city and see if that would fit our needs. And then, what it was going to be like planning a meeting in a Latin American country.”

The visit went well, and soon ASCE signed off on Panama City for its 2014 conference. This past April, Rushing returned to Panama for her first formal site visit, which included meetings with officials at ACP, who will be partnering with ASCE on the conference, and whose administrator, Jorge Luis Quijano, will serve as honorary chair. For obvious reasons, the canal will be a centerpiece of the meeting — hosting tours and site inspections, providing fodder for education sessions and historical presentations, offering its expansion as a case study of a “gigaproject” in progress, and more.

But ASCE isn’t meeting in the Panama Canal, it’s meeting in Panama. And it will be doing so at an interesting time in the country’s development as an international meeting destination. ATP is in the process of overhauling its convention and visitors bureau, which, according to Viscasillas, has never actually had any employees. In its place, ATP has launched a six-person pilot team called DMO Panama, modeled on North American- and European-style CVBs. “The idea is to have a public-private partnership, just like the ones in the United States and Canada,” Viscasillas said, “and create a structure that’s needed for Panama -sales, marketing, services.”

Along with that, the country is upgrading its meetings infrastructure, adding hotels in downtown Panama City and breaking ground on a new, $193.7-million convention center situated on the Amador Causeway, at the Pacific Ocean entrance to the canal. At 570,000 square feet, with a 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 2,000-per-son amphitheater, the new complex — scheduled to open next year — will be several times bigger than Panama’s aging Atlapa Convention Center. And the 4-million-square-foot Biomuseo, a biodiversity museum designed by Frank Gehry will open later this year on a site that’s adjacent to the new convention center.

“A lot is happening in Panama,” Viscasillas said. “The present administration has made a commitment to the tourism industry, and especially to the convention industry, to make Panama a center of international conferences.”


While the Civil Engineering Conference is ASCE’s flagship event, attendance ranges from just 800 to 1,000 people — surprising for an organization with more than 140,000 members. But ASCE also has eight institutes serving specialty areas, including architectural engineering, construction, environmental and water resources, and transportation, and each institute has its own congress — some of them annual — that attracts a thousand or so attendees. So there’s a great deal of competition within the society for member attention. “We have lots of meetings,” Rushing said. “There’s about 20 or so events a year that either we’re hosting or we are partnering with other industries and societies throughout the world.”

Until recently, the Civil Engineering Conference was held twice a year. But ASCE was looking to streamline and strengthen the event — “This is supposed to be where we bring all of the disciplines together,” Rushing said, “to talk about the issues that face civil engineers as a whole” — and so merged the two meetings into one annual conference. “We’re right now in the process of trying to retool what our annual is,” Rushing said. “And in doing that, we’re looking at what is facing the civil engineers. What do they need to know?”

When we talked to Rushing, it was a few months after her first site visit to Panama City, and she was in contract negotiations for her 2014 venues. ASCE doesn’t have a set type of meeting facility it always uses. “I don’t think I have an ideal,” Rushing said. “We’re flexible. It really depends on the city and the venue, and what they have to offer.”

She’s expecting a thousand to 1,500 attendees at the 2014 conference, a group size that “can be contained in a large hotel,” she said, but “the challenging part is that not all of the hotels [in Panama] are that large.” Most likely ASCE will end up spread out among a few properties in downtown Panama City — “We want to make sure that our attendees get out and experience the city that we’re in, that they have an opportunity to go places and do things” — but as of press time that was still being nailed down.

“Doing an international meeting, the contracting phase takes a bit longer than it does in the U.S.,” Rushing said. “So there are some negotiations going on about some of the legal clauses. They don’t have certain aspects that we would expect. They have certain things that we are not used to. So, it’s finding that middle ground.” Panamanian hotels, for example, include breakfast as part of their room rate. “That’s their package, and they won’t break that apart,” Rushing said. “So now we have to factor that into what the attendees will pay. And then, now that we don’t have breakfast, how do we meet their food-and-beverage minimums?”

Another challenge for Rushing so far has been the language. “I’ve had to brush up on my Spanish,” she said. “Panama speaks English, but it’s not as widespread or prevalent as you’re led to believe.” Rushing is planning on instituting basic Spanish lessons for her staff, “so that they know how to either get around or ask questions or figure out how to get what they need.”

And there are cultural differences. Panama is a more formal society, meaning that people tend to dress in strict business attire and that there are “certain pleasantries that need to be addressed.” And even people with whom Rushing is working closely tend to call her “Mrs. Rushing” or “Señora Rushing.”

“That’s one of the things I’m trying to make sure that I understand now, is what’s acceptable,” she said. “And how do they like to do business, so that it’s not just us coming in and going, ‘Oh, here it is. This is what we need to do.’”

But while manners and etiquette are more formal, the business culture is more laid-back when it comes to setting agendas and ironing out details. “We want a little more structure, like, ‘We’re coming in for a site visit and we want to do X, Y, and Z. We want to see these hotels, venues, special events’ — whatever it is,” Rushing said. “You know, how do we get around? How do we do transportation? How do we move people? Do you have bus companies we can talk to? And that’s a little bit different than what they’re used to.”

That said, Rushing has found ATP is working “to be more receptive to what Americans are used to dealing with, and to get up to speed on how to provide certain services.” Viscasillas calls that approach “collaborative sales, where each side is sharing the opportunities — with the client and the destination.”


Rushing anticipates making another site visit to Panama City sometime this fall, after this year’s Civil Engineering Conference, which is being held in Charlotte, N.C, on Oct. 9-12. That’s Panama’s rainy season, and Rushing wants to experience it for herself, so she knows what her attendees can expect next October.

Once the hotel contract is finalized, Rushing will be concentrating on booking a Panama-based professional congress organizer who can help with the RFP process for local vendors. “We’re also going to be looking at what we’re going to be doing with the Panama Canal Authority, because of the tours,” Rushing said. “There’s a lot that has to be done in advance for all of the tours that we’re doing — whether we need certain clearances to get places, how long it’s going to take, exactly what the technical tour’s going to be.”

And then the overriding priority becomes the education program, which more than any other element of the conference is out of Rushing’s direct control, at least when it comes to content. A member committee is in charge of that. “I think we’re similar to a lot of scientific organizations,” she said. “Staff takes care of day-to-day business kinds of things – logistics, operations. Our members are focused on the content, because they are the content experts. I wouldn’t know whether looking at a big truck hauling dirt or a dredging machine that’s out in the river would be exciting to an engineer or not.”

But even for the experts, the challenge will be to look beyond the canal, as relevant and captivating as that will be for attendees, and focus on the “global aspects” that ASCE has been working to incorporate into the Civil Engineering Conference over the last four years. “Our specialty conferences do an excellent job with dealing with their specialty and drilling down into the 101-type of content,” Rushing said. “So we don’t need to compete or do the same thing. What we really need to look at is what affects a civil engineer across all disciplines and across the world.”

Editor’s Note: 
To coincide with next year’s 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is bringing its 2014 Civil Engineering Conference to Panama City. Over the next year, Convene will present Engineering ASCE 2014, a series of articles about planning the conference – beginning this month, with an introduction to ASCE, the Panama Canal, and the challenges and opportunities involved in bringing the two together.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.